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Power Struggle Among Russia's Militants

Thursday, August 19, 2010 - 03:56 Print Text Size

By Ben West and Lauren Goodrich

On Aug. 12, four members of the militant group the Caucasus Emirate (CE) appeared in a video posted on a Russian militant website withdrawing their support from CE founder and leader Doku Umarov. The reason for the mutiny was Umarov's Aug. 4 retraction of his Aug. 1 announcement that he was stepping down from the top leadership position. STRATFOR and many others noted at the time that the Aug. 1 resignation was unexpected and suggested that Umarov may have been killed. However, the Aug. 4 retraction revealed that Umarov was still alive and that there was considerable confusion over who was in control of the militant group.

The mutineers were all high-level members of the militant group: Hussein Gakayev, commander of the CE's Chechen forces; Aslambek Vadalov, commander of Dagestani forces and to whom Umarov had briefly turned over control in his Aug. 1 resignation; an Arab commander named Muhannad; and a veteran field commander known as Tarkhan. The four CE commanders said Umarov's renunciation showed disrespect for his subordinates and that, while the four leaders continued to pledge support to the CE, they no longer supported Umarov. Gakayev, Tarkhan and Muhannad had all appeared in a video that aired Aug. 1 in which they supported Umarov's decision to appoint Vadalov CE emir.

To further confuse the issue, a video released Aug. 11 by Emir Adam, the CE leader in Ingushetia, pledged his and his followers' loyalty to Umarov. The next day, another video appeared featuring the group's new leader in Dagestan, Emir Seyfullakh Gubdensky (who succeeded Vadalov after he became deputy leader of the CE), similarly endorsing Umarov's reclamation of the top CE post.

These disparate messages from top leaders paint a picture of confusion and dissension in the CE that appears to mark a serious crisis for a group, which, until recently, had been consolidating militant groups across the Caucasus under a single, more strategic leadership structure. STRATFOR has collected insight from sources familiar with the group and its leadership turmoil that explains what happened and the nature of the threat that the CE poses to Russian security in the Caucasus.

The Inside Story

According to a Russian source, the confusion caused by Umarov's apparent indecision over the CE leadership position was a deliberate operation by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB). According to that source, the operation that ultimately appears to have undermined Umarov's position as leader of the CE began in early 2010. However, the FSB received intelligence only over the past two months that set the stage for executing the operation. That intelligence allegedly came from the CE's former leader in Ingushetia, Emir Ali Taziyev, who was arrested by the FSB on June 9 in an Ingushetian village. Taziyev allegedly provided the FSB information on the CE's training, ideology, weapons procurement and leadership structure. This information then allowed the FSB to activate a sleeper agent, Movladi Udugov, who served directly under Umarov as the CE's head of media and publicity. According to our source, Udugov was responsible for the unauthorized release of the video in which Umarov announced that he was stepping down and named Vadalov as his successor.

The story goes that Umarov had recorded the video with the intent of saving it and releasing it only in the event of his demise. This would ensure that a crisis of succession wouldn't erupt because of his death or disappearance. The fact that Vadalov was named as his successor on July 25 means that each of the regional leaders within the CE had likely agreed to the decision. It is important to note that the leadership crisis did not occur because Vadalov was assigned to the post, but because Umarov appeared to have stepped down and then reclaimed his title. Udugov provided the crucial blow to Umarov's status as leader of the CE by releasing the resignation video prematurely, laying the foundation for dissension among Umarov's followers.

The resulting flurry of approval and disapproval from the CE's corps of commanders shows just how damaging the videos were. We have to be critical of the Russian source's account of how all of this transpired, since the source is likely interested in promoting the FSB's capabilities and its penetration of Russia's most dangerous militant group. The account is logical, however, since it does explain the unusual sequence of videos, and the FSB is capable of infiltrating such a group. There are, of course, other explanations for what could have motivated Udugov to release the tape: Perhaps he was trying to trigger a power struggle within the group on his own, or perhaps someone else inside the CE obtained the tape and released it in hopes of weakening Umarov or promoting Vadalov. However, it is very unlikely that the release was a mistake, since Umarov and his commanders have proved very competent at running a successful militant movement.

Looking deeper, it becomes obvious that a video alone would not have caused dissension on the scale that we are seeing now within the CE. Had everything been perfect in the CE and had Umarov enjoyed unwavering support, he could have dismissed the video as an attempt to undermine his authority, promised to punish those responsible and gone on with business. It is very apparent that Umarov was not able to do this. The release of the videos exacerbated divisions among CE factions that Umarov and his deputies were trying to consolidate. By releasing the video of Umarov stepping down as commander, Udugov (allegedly under FSB guidance) forced the divisions into the public spotlight.

According to our Russian source, the resignation scandal has split the CE three ways. The first split concerns operational security. The CE knew that penetrating the group was a top priority for the FSB and that it had to remain vigilant against outsiders attempting to do just that. Simply the allegation that one of Umarov's top advisers was working for the FSB undermines the sense of operational security throughout the entire group. Already, accusations of FSB involvement in the CE leadership crisis have emerged in the open-source network, on sites like globaljihad.net. In such an atmosphere, the level of trust among commanders decreases (as they begin to wonder who is reporting to the FSB) and the level of paranoia increases. Infighting at the top of any organization can quickly create operational gridlock and reduce the organization's effectiveness. This is exactly why the Russians might try to claim credit for the tape's release, even if they were not responsible.

The second split is generational and ideological. According to our source, a younger faction of the CE (led by Vadalov) has accused Umarov and his cadre of not protecting the ideological unity of the CE. It is no secret that Umarov is much more experienced in and knowledgeable of military strategy and tactics, while his background in Islamism is weak. He has bungled religious protocol and terminology a number of times, undermining his authority as emir of the group. Meanwhile, the older, more military-oriented faction accuses the younger faction of being willing to work with Moscow and sell out the movement.

The third and possibly most volatile fault line is the tension between regional groups within the Caucasus Emirate. The northern Caucasus republics of Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan each have their own, independent histories of militancy, with Chechen militants traditionally being Moscow's highest-profile antagonists. Without the support of the Chechen commander of the CE (Khusein Gakayev, who withdrew his support for Umarov in the Aug. 12 video), Umarov has a serious deficit of support in controlling the Caucasus Emirate. The advantage of having the support of the current Ingushetian and Dagestani militant leaders is diluted by the fact that Chechnya geographically lies directly between them, rendering any trans-Caucasus network incomplete. Also, Chechens have been the more successful leaders of militant movements in the Caucasus. Umarov himself is Chechen, as was Shamil Basayev, a commander of Chechen separatist forces in two wars against Russia.

Threat and Inherent Weaknesses

It is exactly because of Doku Umarov's ability to bring together militants of different motivations, generations and locations under the umbrella of the Caucasus Emirate that made his group so threatening to the Russian state. As a unified militant group, the CE proved capable of launching a suicide attack against Moscow's subway system in March 2010 and carrying out relatively sophisticated attacks targeting security forces and infrastructure. The CE leadership structure provided strategic guidance to the individual militant groups operating in the separate republics that actually carried out the attacks. With the recent crisis in leadership, these capabilities will likely be severely weakened.

Umarov announced the formation of the CE only in 2007, which means the group was just three years old when the leadership turmoil broke out Aug. 1. This is precious little time to consolidate militant groups across a region with sharp geographic fragmentation that traditionally has caused groups to be isolated and independent. Moscow has had plenty of problems controlling the region and is faced with the same geographic challenges as the Caucasus Emirate. A different source familiar with the CE said that Umarov has most recently attempted to consolidate the CE by broadcasting his statements in different languages, such as Avar, which is widely spoken in Dagestan. But Avar is only one of 10 languages spoken across Dagestan alone, which makes communicating efficiently to an audience across the Caucasus a difficult task.

That same source has said that the CE has had trouble moving food, supplies, weapons and people across the Caucasus (this effort is complicated by Russian security forces as well as geography), which means that each group is responsible for providing for itself. This prevents standardization across the militant movement and complicates cooperation among groups. It also reduces the reliance of regional militant groups on the Caucasus Emirate leadership, decreasing Umarov's control over the movement. If militant commanders in Chechnya are supplying and recruiting on their own, they are less likely to take orders on what to do with those resources from detached leaders. However, lack of unity among the groups does not necessarily make them less able to carry out the small-scale attacks that are common in the Caucasus. On Aug. 17, five days after a split in the CE leadership became apparent, a suicide bomber (most likely affiliated with a group linked to the CE) attacked a police checkpoint along the border of Ingushetia and North Ossetia.

Militant groups existed in the Caucasus long before the Caucasus Emirate was formed and will continue to exist long after it is gone. The strategic importance of the Caucasus and the fragmentation of its inhabitants due to ethnicity, culture and geography (which makes for ideal guerrilla-warfare terrain), ensure that whoever attempts to control the region will face serious challenges from local populations who want to govern themselves. With varying levels of success, these groups will continue to use violence to undermine their respective governments, especially those seen as Moscow's lackeys.

Indeed, even though the Caucasus Emirate may be seriously disrupted by recent turmoil in its leadership structure, the regional militant groups that made up the CE will certainly continue to conduct attacks against security forces and even civilians as they try to loosen Moscow's control over the region. But the turmoil will reduce the strategic threat the combined efforts of these disparate groups had posed to Moscow for the foreseeable future.

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